Times Argus/Rutland Herald: Raw milk advocates push; Vermont farmers frustrated

DES MOINES, Iowa — Raw milk advocates’ efforts to expand availability across the United States have not slowed despite health officials’ assertions that it’s dangerous to drink milk that hasn’t been heated to kill bacteria.

Efforts to legalize raw milk sales in some form have succeeded in 42 states, including Vermont, and expansion pushes are ongoing this year in states including Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island, North Dakota and Texas.

In Vermont, raw milk is legal but cannot be sold in retail establishments. Instead, thereisatwotiered system. Tier 1 producers can sell raw milk straight from the farm. Tier 2 producers can deliver raw milk to farmers markets, but only if the sale and financing have been set up beforehand. There are also regulations for the testing of milk and animals.

“It’s a pretty restrictive system,” said Andrea Stander, director of Rural Vermont, a Montpelier based farming advocacy group. She said Vermont’s system seems strict when compared with those of other states that allow raw milk, particularly New Hampshire.

Rural Vermont, she said, has historically led the push to create opportunities for Vermont dairy farmers to sell raw milk. Two years ago, laws were amended, increasing the volume of milk farmers were allowed to sell weekly in both tiers, and making testing requirements less restrictive, she said.

Stander said she doesn’t expect the Legislature to be amenable to new changes for a while, until lawmakers have had a chance to see how the 2015 changes work.

For Lisa Kaiman, a dairy farmer who sells raw milk from the Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, it’s a system that still has a long way to go.

“It’s still very restrictive … they make it as hard as possible because they don’t want you to do it,” said Kaiman, adding she’s been testifying before the Legislature on this issue for more than a decade.

She can sell processed milk on the market for about a dollar a gallon. Raw milk, she said, will net about $9 per gallon, but that isn’t necessarily why this issue is important to her. It’s about quality.

“I believe in raw milk,” said Kaiman. “Processed milk is garbage. No one should drink it.”

In order to stay financially solvent, farmers need to diversify, Stander said. Raw milk is an option, particularly as the farmer can set their own price. Producers are also responding to the wants of the consumers, she said.

“There’s a lot of demand for raw milk. A lot of people feel it is healthier,” said Stander.

One of the biggest problems in Vermont, she added, is that farmers are required to test their milk twice per month, and the only place to do that is a state laboratory in Chittenden County. That’s a long way to travel with a sample for a farmer in southern Vermont.

Kaiman said selling processed milk, due to pricing and regulation, forces farmers to diversify too much. They have to figure out a lot of additional revenue streams rather than focusing on what they do best. “ Stretching the farmer — there’s the food-safety (danger),” she said.

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